Life as a College Football Cupcake: Why Smaller Teams Take Their Lumps

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterSeptember 8, 2016

ANN ARBOR, MI - SEPTEMBER 1: Appalachian State celebrates their victory over the Michigan Wolverines 34-32 on September 1, 2007 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Leon Halip/Getty Images

The working assumption is that the team with more will obliterate the team with less. This arrangement is as much a part of the fabric of college football as warm charcoal and full koozies.

We call them cupcakes. Paycheck games. Unwatchable.

Whatever label you wish to bestow, watching a powerful brand from one of the nation's five major conferences clobber an FCS opponent or mid-major early on in the season is a familiar ritual.

The team with less will be compensated for such obliteration, of course. That's an enormous part of this agreement. Being a sacrificial lamb isn't free or cheap. Nor should it be.

Florida paid Massachusetts $1.25 million to travel to Gainesville last week and lose, 24-7. Iowa gave Miami (Ohio) a cool $1 million to spend the afternoon getting pounded, 45-21, at Kinnick Stadium. Oregon paid UC-Davis $500,000 to help it kick off the season with a 53-28 rout. The list goes on and on.

The heavy favorites put their influx of television money to good use and enjoyed the closest thing this strange sport has to a preseason. They sloshed one inch closer to bowl eligibility.

The road teams lost as they were supposed to. They enjoyed a trip and an experience and escaped without mass injuries—always a concern when their often smaller teams line up against the nationally ranked big boys. More importantly, they added an enormous sum of money to the bottom line, perhaps to update the stadium, buy jerseys or ramp up the recruiting budget.

From the couch, these matchups are infuriating. We demand points and theater and a struggle of some kind. We don't care how it is served. Just bring it to us.

On rare occasions, an FCS opponent makes a favorite sweat or even wins. Appalachian State put a scare into Tennessee last week on the ninth anniversary of its win over Michigan at The Big House.

Although they have since graduated from the FCS ranks and even won a bowl game last season, the Mountaineers were paid $1.15 million to take the field in Week 1. Appalachian State knows what these programs are playing for beyond the obvious. To be loved and revered, if only for one day.

These so-called cupcakes are more than just cannon fodder. They're teams made up of real people with real emotions who have spent their entire lives chasing down this dream.

They get it. They know why the games are being played and the likely outcome, although they will not accept their role until they absolutely must.

Wofford head coach Mike Ayers
Wofford head coach Mike AyersTyler Smith/Getty Images

Mike Ayers has been the head coach at Wofford since 1988, when the Terriers were a Division II team. Wofford moved up to I-AA, now FCS, in 1995 and has won the Southern Conference four times, most recently in 2012. In 2003, Ayers was named FCS coach of the year.

Leading up to Saturday's game against Ole Miss—an environment Ayers says he's overjoyed to experience for the first time—he has won 188 times.

He's done more in this sport than most coaches can fathom. And yet, he can't help but look back at a single game: September 10, 2011, the day Wofford nearly beat a roster chock-full of future NFL players and Pro Bowlers.

Heading into the fourth quarter against Clemson, Wofford was up by one point. A college offense led by quarterback Tajh Boyd, wide receivers Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins and Martavis Bryant, tight end Dwayne Allen and running back Andre Ellington was on the verge of a massive upset loss.

"We had a breakdown on the defense, not fitting the proper gap," Ayers told Bleacher Report. "It was a great day. I say a great day, but you never like losing. Our kids did everything they could."

A late Hopkins touchdown ultimately propelled Clemson to a 35-27 win. Wofford had an opportunity to tie the game late, but an illegal-motion penalty derailed a promising drive near the goal line.

Emotions were assorted. It ranged somewhere between punishing disappointment and overflowing pride.

"We all leave a legacy," Ayers said. "And you look at playing those guys, with a ton of No. 1 draft choices just like Ole Miss has this year, and you're competing with the best in the country. That's pretty cool."

Since then, Wofford has lost respectably to South Carolina and Georgia Tech. They were also steamrolled by Baylor. Last year, playing Clemson in Week 1, the Terriers were unable to match their previous effort in a 49-10 defeat.

CLEMSON, SC - SEPTEMBER 5: Zac Brooks #24 of the Clemson Tigers rushes for a touchdown during the game against the Wofford Terriers at Clemson Memorial Stadium on September 5, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina. (Photo by Tyler Smith/Getty Images)
Tyler Smith/Getty Images

Now, it's on to Oxford to play a program with a seemingly endless batch of power forwards at receiver, atypical speed at nearly every position and a quarterback who will be a menace to slow down.

But the strategy will not change. It cannot change. Not now. It never has for Ayers or the hundreds of players he has guided into these environments.

"Anytime we've had a chance to win, whether it's Clemson or South Carolina, it's because we've executed," Ayers said. "If you try to be different in this game, you'll have more mistakes than Carter's has pills. Understand the plan. And then implement the plan to the best of your abilities.

"That'll give you a shot. After that, you hope for a little bit of luck."

The likely outcome is that Wofford will succumb to the abundance of athleticism.

Perhaps Ole Miss will fall victim to the ultimate sandwich situation: a short week after a Monday game and Alabama looming the next weekend. But even then, it likely won't be enough.

No matter the outcome, money will change hands. This game against Ole Miss did not suddenly emerge out of thin air. Although Wofford does not release exact figures, it will be compensated well.

This is the only guarantee.

Although the reasoning behind this game has financial origins, money is not an exclusive focus. Ayers has seen the impact this can have on the young people he leads.

He knows what emotions came from that Clemson game, and he hopes one day to relive them. But in many ways, the result is often the least important outcome.

"You have the ability to create revenue and do things that you might not be able to do if you didn't have one of these on your schedule," Ayers said. "Besides that, whether we were getting a nickel or not, everybody wants to play these games. At the end, win or lose, you've gone through it. You've been through that journey."

Charleston Southern Coach Jamey Chadwell
Charleston Southern Coach Jamey ChadwellImage via Charleston Southern

Shortly before Charleston Southern walks out of the visiting tunnel of Doak Campbell Stadium on Saturday as a mighty underdog, head coach Jamey Chadwell will deliver the final words to his team. He doesn't precisely know what his message will be just yet, but he knows what it won't be.

"I won't give them one of those 'Win one for the Gipper' or David vs. Goliath speeches," Chadwell said. "I'm smart enough to realize we'd need about 100 Davids. We embrace that. We don't cry about it or complain. We go out there and do it."

Last season, Charleston Southern lost, 56-6, to Alabama. In 2014, the Buccaneers fell to Georgia, 55-9. In that same season, however, they nearly upset Vanderbilt.

The money gained from these games helped reshape one of the most successful FCS programs.

Playing Colorado in 2013 allowed the school to purchase lights for their field. The matchups with Vanderbilt and Georgia helped pave the way for locker room and stadium updates. The loss to Alabama went to a new playing surface.

The money gained from playing Florida State on Saturday will allow the program to do things it wouldn't otherwise be able to do.

"We realize the chances of winning are very slim to none. This is a money game," Chadwell said. "We need that money to help build our program to where we can be consistent. If we didn't have these games, none of this happens. They talk 'cupcakes' and all that stuff. Most people just don't realize how big they are for schools like us."

Charleston Southern Coach Jamey Chadwell
Charleston Southern Coach Jamey ChadwellImage via Charleston Southern

The opponent on Saturday is not oblivious to the game's importance. Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher has long defended playing FCS games, clashing against public perception.

While conferences, including the Big Ten, have cracked down on playing FCS opponents, Fisher has not budged from his stance or the Seminoles' scheduling choices.

"What you're're killing the sport from an ego," Fisher told reporters in August. "All of the sudden, guys ain't going to play football no more because there ain't enough schools out there to give scholarships. That's not about playing the FCS, it's about the game of football and filtering it all the way down so there's scholarships in Division II."

This is about continuing to thrive, but Charleston Southern has also selected an opponent it believes will help in other ways. Because Chadwell and his staff actively recruit in Florida, they view this as an opportunity to hit a target audience.

The abundance of high school players from the state of Florida tuning in—many of whom will not be talented enough to play at their dream Florida schools—will see a school that willingly plays in these environments. They will see this again in 2018, when Wofford plays Florida in Gainesville.

Want to play in the building you grew up dreaming about even though you don't have an offer from the university? Wofford has a way.

That experience can be enough for one lifetime. No matter the result, the entire Wofford roster will be able to say it shared the field with players as talented as safety Derwin James and running back Dalvin Cook.

That shouldn't be perceived as some sort of door prize. That is an everlasting moment and something each player can carry. Even better than simply sharing the field is getting a shot.

"At the end of the day, we're all wired the same," Chadwell said. "We want to see if our best is good enough against the best of the best. After the game, when they're beat up, I'm sure they won't be thinking that.

"But we got an open week coming up. We got time to heal."

AUBURN, AL - SEPTEMBER 12: Wide receiver Ruben Gonzalez #15 of the Jacksonville State Gamecocks attempts to catch a pass in front of defensive back Johnathan Ford #23 of the Auburn Tigers on September 12, 2015 at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Alabama. Th
Michael Chang/Getty Images

For an elongated stretch one Saturday afternoon, Jacksonville State had our full attention.

Auburn, ranked No. 6 in the nation, was on the cusp of losing to a program most outside the Southeast require a Google search to locate.

It was September 12, 2015. With 5:38 remaining—with Auburn fans seeing it happen in real time on their brand-new $3.5 million video board, and the irony is not lost here—Jacksonville State took the lead.

"I went into the game feeling like we would win. Playing well wasn't a shocker to me," Jacksonville State quarterback Eli Jenkins said. "It seems like people forget we lost that game. It's almost like they act like we won. In the record book, it will always say we lost to Auburn."

Overtime ultimately served as the Gamecocks' undoing. Auburn prevailed 27-20, putting a halt to a moment that, at least for a few hours, felt like Appalachian State-Michigan reincarnated.

"You don't ever get over those games," head coach John Grass said. "You never forget those, win or lose. But you look back at how well you played and you're so proud of that."

Grass' team didn't lose another game for nearly four months. The only other defeat on the schedule came against North Dakota State in the FCS Championship.

On Saturday, Jacksonville State will play LSU under the lights in Baton Rouge. Playing against an opponent still reeling from its Week 1 loss, it will attempt to recreate last year's effort and do one better.

This is not the typical cupcake. The offense is powered by Auburn transfer Roc Thomas, who was one of the nation's most coveted backs coming out of high school.

At quarterback, Jenkins spent the offseason being wooed by Power Five programs after a 36-touchdown season. Schools in need of a QB kicked the tires on the possibility of him coming in as a graduate transfer. Ultimately, he decided to stay.

"I've been here since the beginning," Jenkins said. "They gave me a chance to play quarterback when a lot of schools looked me over. I'm loyal to those people. That's what kept me here."

Since Grass arrived in 2014, Jacksonville State is 24-4. Two of those losses have come at the hands of FBS schools, Auburn in 2015 and Michigan State in 2014.

EAST LANSING, MI - AUGUST 29:  Marcus Rush #44 of the Michigan State Spartans closes in on Quarterback Eli Jenkins #7 of the Jacksonville State Gamecocks during the first half at Spartan Stadium on August 29, 2014 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Duan
Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Although Grass has only been a collegiate coach for a few seasons, bouncing around Alabama high schools up until 2013, he is well-accustomed to the importance of playing up.

"Some of these mid-major teams go play a Power Five and they're getting more than a million dollars," Grass said. "We're not getting that kind of check, even though you wish you were. But we're getting anywhere from $400,000 to $600,000, and it goes a long way, budget-wise."

Grass says the money received from playing LSU will help pay for stadium renovations the program finished a few years ago. "You have to be able to play those games in order to do that," he added.

But there is a sense of belief, perhaps to an uncommon degree after coming so close, that it can be done.

No matter how athletic LSU is in so many places. No matter the number of mismatches. No matter how many future NFL players will line up on the other side. Jacksonville State believes a win is possible. It doesn't view this game through the same lens as everyone else.

"I feel like everyone on our team wants the opportunity to play in a big game like this. It just gives a chance to showcase our talent to the world," Jenkins said. "There is no such thing as divisions in my eyes. It's football. I put on my pads, you put on your pads and we go man-to-man and grind it out until the end. That's my mentality."

Deep down, this optimism lives in the thousands of players and coaches who assume this role each year. For those who are truly overmatched, it might be blind hope more than anything else, but it still exists.

This game comes with perks, but it is still a sacrifice of sorts. The players understand the assignment is for them to put their bodies on the line against bigger, strong, faster players. For the experience and the stories they'll have to tell, yes, but also for the betterment of those who will come after them.

This is something everyone has knowingly signed on for, and there's some lost beauty in that.

Even still, one can't help but get lost in possibility. Not the paycheck or the new locker rooms or the field turf that will ultimately come from playing a few hours in a full stadium. But the chance that everything will come together on one Saturday for one group that was previously deemed unworthy.

That, for whatever reason, if only for a few hours, the arrangement no longer applies.


All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.


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